Call of the Woods
I haven’t spent a lot of time putting thoughts into essays this summer, although I have spent considerable time thinking about new ideas—how could I not, given the country’s political state these days? To quote an old rock song from Steelers Wheel:
Clowns to the left of me,
jokers to the right,
Here I am,
stuck in the middle with you.
I hear that old song, and I cannot get the image of a tiny clown car out of my head. On the left door is a jackass; on the right is cartoon a pachyderm. Umpteen clowns are pressing against my conscience all at once on the inside. Oh well. This, too, shall pass. Except, I fear that it might just not.
I spent most of the first summer of my quarantine years refinishing two family heirlooms that we inherited from Sandy’s family—a vintage mahogany coffee table built by her father and an antique oak washstand with provenance back to the early 1900s.
As with most projects involving wood, glue, dowels, sandpaper, chemicals, and brass hardware, it took me far longer than I anticipated at the outset. The good news—at least from this man’s point of view—was that it also required dozens of trips to the hardware store and the purchase of enough new tools that I will have to change my will. I am sad to admit that my tool legacy had almost slipped away when we moved into our downsized home into our 55+ community, where space is at a premium. It wasn’t long into my work that I re-discovered the maxim for home jobs: Every new project requires a new tool.
After giving away most of my tools as we downsized into our smaller house, I had managed in five years to acquire a Dewalt battery-powered drill and a Ryobi battery-powered air pump. But for the projects ahead, I needed a saw that would cut accurately and a sander that could remove years of bad finishes, and another one that could sand in tiny nooks and crannies where the worst of the neglect of the years resided. Manufacturers have really made some leaps in battery-powered tools in my absence from the tool departments at Lowes and Home Depot. I added a Ryobi palm sander that uses Velcro sanding sheets and runs for 20 minutes on a battery charge using the same battery as my air-pump. Amazing.
After I was well into my journey to purgatory—the place one goes when a project drags on and on with wood and tools and chemicals on the dining room table. During my stay in branches of the purgatorial gumbo-limbo tree, a conversation with my much older brother convinced me that I straightaway needed a multi-tool if I was going to finish my summer projects lest they extend into football season. You remember college football. Right?
With Amazon as close as my iPhone, I added a battery-powered Ryobi Multi-tool using the same battery as the sander and air-pump. The thing and can take dozens of attachments—none of which come with it—meaning additional trips to Home Depot or Amazon. Darn.
I must give credit to my brother, Bill, when he said it was the tool that every man who calls himself a man must have if only to admire it sitting on the shelf when he opens the garage door to take the Honda to the grocery store to pick up some organic asparagus and air-grown lettuce for the wife.
To actually get started on a piece of furniture older than oneself requires significant commitment since it is going to take many times longer than that estimate you gave m’lady at the beginning. Curiously, it takes more than a fair bit of vision as well. The kind of view that can see the wood’s potential inside all the goop on the outside.
Even if one can see the potential in the piece, repairs are often needed to ensure that the finished product endures many decades after it is done. Has the wood been damaged or broken? Does it need to be taken totally apart and put back together with new glue? Or does it just need a bit of glue and clamping tight overnight? Clamps—another reason to visit the tools department. One never has enough clamps—another maxim of the woodworker, I believe.
The first piece I worked was a mahogany coffee table that my wife’s father built for the family. Sandy says she cannot remember a time when it was not in her living room as she grew up, which means it is over 70 years old and survived a house of three boys and a girl. It was easy to see the beauty of the mahogany underneath the old and darkened original finish, but it was falling apart at every joint. Therefore, I had to take it entirely apart and put it back together. I restored it restored stronger than it had ever been given the modern glues available to me. Taking it apart also made it easier to remove the finish on the pieces as I didn’t have any inside corners that always resist giving up their old finishes.
Once down to the bare wood with a final sanding with 340 grit sandpaper, I hand-rubbed three coats of Danish Oil to each individual part. Back together, I applied three more coats of Feed-N-Wax, a product with beeswax and orange oil—a remarkable product. That vintage mahogany responded just as I had hoped to the oil and beeswax. The finish now has a soft glow and a depth that I am not sure is possible with spray-on or brush-on finishes. And, one of the most practical reasons to use the oil and wax combination is that one need not worry about dust settling on the finish before it has dries.
The second refinishing project, which turned out much harder than the first, was the turn of the century washstand. It had been in my wife’s family for a many, many years before we inherited it. Unlike the coffee table which has mostly been on top of a cabinet in the garage waiting for the spirt to move me, we have used the washstand in various ways over the years. However, it always begged to return its first life as a simple washstand—the kind found in every home in days gone by. I thought I saw some beautiful old red oak under the finish. But, as I started to remove the current finish, I found at least four different coats of finish had been applied during its 120 years of life—the original shellac, whitewash, black paint, and its current yellowed polyurethane.
Taking the oak down to the wood was a tedious process almost totally lacking in satisfaction and demanding an unyielding vision of what lies beneath the years of sludge one is about to remove. This piece required stripper to be used, and I had forgotten how messy that process was going to be. Since it was mid-July, when I started this piece, it was 90 degrees and 90% humidity at 9:00 a.m., which meant I had to work inside, and required another trip to get another canvass drop cloth to cover the area around the dining table. The washstand stood on the dining table on top of the regular waterproof under-the-tablecloth-covering, a canvass drop cloth, and several old towels. Still, there was the hardwood around the table to consider and thus the larger and heavier second drop cloth.
Stripping was as messy as I remembered. Required several applications and did little to show me the wood underneath all the old finishes. In taking the front cabinet doors off, I broke off an old steel woodscrew rusted and embedded in the wood. Great. My solution was to replace the small hinges with larger ones covering up the screw whose stub would remain for another hundred years. Still, I got to use my new Multi-tool to enlarge the slot for the new hinges! Easy-peasy. No wood chisel was necessary.
After several days of nothing but stripping and rough sanding, the old oak began to show its character. Unfortunately, some of the white and black finishes remained deep in the grain, which required another trip to find a couple of brass-tined brushes that worked wonders in the deep grains and around the intricate decorative trim on the washstand’s harp-piece.
It was time to easily attach the new hinges to the doors and the doors to the cabinet. Right. Not really. As always, the demons which haunt almost every amateur woodworker—square, level, and plumb—emerged to cause me grief. Lots of it. The damn doors would not go back on without scraping the bottom of the opening. Finally solved by the carpenter’s friends—a few shims, in the form of washers, in the right places.
With doors attached with new brass hinges and a creaky warped drawer bottom and a newly attached bottom to chest firmly attached, it was time for final sanding. However, there is no final sanding as one must work the wood over and again, and again, and again with progressively finer grains of sandpaper until the wood shows its a natural luster and soft patina. Nowadays, every time I walk by the finished piece, I reach out and touch the smoothness of the wood.
Many folks don’t choose oak as a furniture wood preferring maple or cherry or walnut, but this century-old oak, after three coats of Danish Oil and three more of Feed and Wax, required no staining at all. The oils and the wax gave it a soft golden finish with none of the yellows that sometimes result in the golden oak stains.
Remember all those tool-trips to the hardware stores? M’lady’s revenge was exacted on a trip to a huge antique mall in an old textile mill in Mooresville, NC, where we were searching for the perfect ewer (that’s a pitcher to the uninitiated in the antiques or crossword worlds) and bowl to sit atop our beauty. We found it—a white Johnson Brothers pitcher and bowl set crafted in London about 1900. The perfect match to the washstand.
Today our antique ewer and bowl sit on the restored washstand just a few feet away from the mahogany Shaker-like coffee table, beautiful in its simplicity and the fine mahogany used in its construction. both pieces sit in the sunroom showing off their natural colors in the abundant sunlight.
I must admit that I already have eyes on my next project. Roy Hedenberg became my stepfather and Pawpaw to my children late in his life. Living until his early 90s, Pawpaw was both a sailor and boatbuilder of remarkable skills. He and Mother met, married, and lived in Key West, where Roy singlehandedly built a 35-foot motored sailboat, The Bluepoint, from a design used by Chesapeake Bay oystermen—to sail the shallow waters. In typical Pawpaw fashion, he built a one-tenth scale replica before he built the real thing. My oldest son inherited the Bluepoint model, and over the years, it has gone through several moves and is showing its age, which must be about 45. It now sits on its stand in the garage where I can see it each time I get into my Honda Passport, and it is, sure enough, calling to me to make it my next project. Can I last until the fall when the garage will cool down enough to work in it? I am not sure, but I think Sandy will forgive if I take over the dining table again. After all, we have special memories of sailing with year-old, Christian, Mamaw, and Pawpaw on the Bluepoint in the clear, cerulean waters off Key West.